Opening Doors

Career centers unlock opportunities for displaced workers

by Joseph D. Conklin

In October 2013, I was one of many U.S. federal employees who took an unpaid vacation popularly known as the government shutdown. The furlough notice arrived during my honeymoon, making both events even more memorable.

In the blink of an eye, I was facing the same prospects confronted by many of my colleagues in the quality field in the aftermath of the Great Recession: job loss and the looming necessity of a new career path. At the time the furlough hit, it was not clear how long it would last. I stopped by Prince George’s One-Stop Career Center in Laurel, MD, during the second week of the shutdown to look into training and retraining programs for displaced workers.

I scheduled an assessment interview with Jo Welker, a counselor at the center and team member of the group administering the training and retraining programs authorized under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). The WIA is one of the many state versions of job and training programs enacted under various federal laws during the early 1960s.

Thankfully, the shutdown ended just before my appointment. In the glow of being recalled back to work with back pay, I decided to still meet with Welker to learn more about the many good and helpful things I sensed happening at the center. With so many professionals in and out of the quality field and struggling with unemployment, career centers are forces of hope during a time when reassurance and encouragement are most needed. The center gave me permission to speak to Welker about the center’s efforts to help applicants build and improve their work lives.

Joseph Conklin (JC): What is your role at Prince George’s One-Stop Career Center?

Jo Welker (JW): I am one of several career consultants. We work for the same Department of Labor program found in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Our main role is to prepare individuals to return to the workforce. Although those completely out of work are understandably the focus of news coverage these days, my role also includes helping people with part-time jobs transition to full-time employment.

JC: What services do you offer under the WIA?

JW: We provide informal and formal tests and assessments. We work with applicants to create career development plans. We supply local labor market information and referrals to other services for resume writing, job search strategies and effective use of social media for networking. We help applicants develop training plans when the goal is new or enhanced job skills. We also provide funding for applicants to undergo training programs.

JC: How do applicants qualify for services?

JW: They must provide proof of their identity, U.S. citizenship and residence in the service area covered by our office. Then, we discuss their current situation and needs in depth. With respect to training or retraining programs, we look at an applicant’s education, experience and major job interests before funding a particular program to ensure it’s a good fit.

JC: What happens when displaced workers apply for retraining?

JW: We encourage those applicants to train for jobs that are in demand in the local labor market. We assess the proposed training to ensure it will provide the right skills for the job the applicant seeks. Before retraining begins, we require applicants to research the local marketplace. Many visit organizations where they would like to work and collect feedback on how well a particular program or certificate would qualify them for a job there.

JC: What attitudes and habits help applicants succeed in training programs?

JW: Applicants must demonstrate the same attitudes and habits in training as they would on the job: a positive mental attitude, punctuality, follow-through on assignments and regular attendance. Training programs require applicants to pass the final exam and successfully complete the course.

JC: What services exist for helping applicants handle the stress of job loss?

JW: We offer an internal workshop called "Professionals Rethinking Employment Pathways." The workshop is run by a facilitator, and attendees complete an individualized plan of study, counseling and positive actions for handling their particular situation. Some applicants come to us with complex emotional issues that are significant barriers to employment. We work with the Department of Rehabilitation Services to connect applicants to special programs they need to overcome barriers.

JC: What recent success stories come to mind?

JW: Success is when an applicant is hired. It is a time to celebrate when we can close a file. Success stories are posted on our bulletin board for all to see. Some recent jobs landed by our applicants are Java engineer, computer network engineer, licensed truck driver, computer lab instructor, senior IT analyst, bank teller and elementary school teacher.

JC: What can employed workers do to prepare for potential job loss?

JW: I can only reiterate some tried-and-true advice: build skills, look for projects that will challenge and develop you, complete your education, and keep up with trends in your field and in the local market. In Maryland, the federal government is a major player in the economy. Local workers might do well in their job search to see which organizations are winning new and large contracts and target them accordingly.

JC: How do you collaborate with your colleagues to help applicants succeed?

JW: There are several career consultants in the office. We talk across desks, in the halls and in monthly meetings. We share what works and what doesn’t. We discuss which jobs are hot and which ones are not. We brainstorm ideas for new workshops. In the era of social media, labor market news ages quickly. We don’t let more than a few days go by without finding out the latest.

JC: What special issues apply to retirees returning to work or starting a new career?

JW: Retirees must focus on what they want to be instead of what they were in their old jobs. They must translate their old job titles into appropriate skills and connect them with organizations’ needs during job interviews. While a new industry or job is a worthy goal, retirees should check their skills and determine their fit. They should be prepared for competition.

My own sense is that over time, organizations will recognize more clearly the contributions older workers can provide. That should make it easier for future retirees to open their next chapter.

JC: What is the next chapter in your own career story?

JW: I plan to continue as a career consultant, but I will be shifting my focus to helping organizations develop and retain staff. The same assessment and collaboration I have applied to individuals will now center on change at the department, office or organization level. ASQ’s website has a lot to offer in this area, and I am sure that I will refer to those resources in my new job working with organizations.

Joseph D. Conklin is a mathematical statistician in Washington, D.C., and a senior member of ASQ. He earned a master’s degree in statistics from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Conklin is also an ASQ-certified quality manager, quality engineer, quality auditor, reliability engineer and Six Sigma Black Belt.

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